|The Road to Dalat Is A Bumpy One...||Friday|
|Ho Chi Minh City, Dalat and Nha Trang, Vietnam||January 18, 2008|
And the way there is fraught with many perils. And is also stinky. Very stinky. But let’s start at the beginning shall we?
As you saw in our last post we spent one of our last days in Ho Chi Minh City at the Cu Chi tunnels. Here’s a video from that experience that you might enjoy.
And finally the time had come for us to say goodbye to Ho Chi Minh City. On our last night in the city our friend Kevin and his dad drove to our hotel and picked us up on their scooters. They took us on a ride so we could get the experience of a scooter journey in HCMC. It was definitely a thrill, but strange things were going down that night. We saw a really, incredibly drunk pair of Vietnamese guys topple their scooter over, fall to the ground with no helmets on, then hop back up and drive off. And while we were enjoying some sugar cane juice with Kevin and Cherie we saw a street brawl between two other Vietnamese guys (I can only assume they were drunk, as that seems to be an important component of such an event). Weird, weird stuff. But at no point did we feel unsafe, so you don’t need to worry about this being a rough town! Here’s a little video Rob took as we were jetting along on our scooters.
And finally the event we had been waiting in Ho Chi Minh City for so long for….the arrival of our Indian visas! We made our way to the consulate early in the morning, had the customary wait that is required when you are doing anything official, and BAM! Two passports complete with visas in hand, and we were ready to hit the road.
And this is where things got interesting.
Days earlier we had found a transit company that offered buses to our next destination, Dalat. With the help of our translator, Kevin, we found out where to go and when to catch the bus. They even gave us a little pamphlet that showed us the times and location to get the bus. However, this pamphlet was entirely in Vietnamese. Not one word in English. This should have been our first clue….
But of course we went along our merry way, caught a taxi, and they dropped us off at this bus station. We were expecting to see a ton of huge tour buses, but in fact it was a small, little place, with rows of chairs, and no buses to be seen. That’s okay, thought we. We marched inside, and Rob set out to get us a couple of tickets. As I’m sitting with the bags I notice that it’s taking him an incredibly long time to just pick up a couple of tickets. I also look around and see only Vietnamese people. Not a single tourist in sight. Hmm….
Rob comes back and says that it seems like we’re on a bus at 2:00PM (it was around 12:00PM now and we were hoping to leave at 1:00PM) and it was a 16-seater bus (we were wanting a big 45-seater). But apparently the girls at the counter didn’t speak a lick of English and Rob had a tough time getting what we wanted across to them. He went back to try to figure it all out, and one of the staff members came up to me and basically made it clear that it was our turn to go. I was quite puzzled, since it was only around noon, and apparently we weren’t leaving until 2:00PM. I waved Rob back over, and we grabbed our bags and were loaded into a little van. I honestly had no clue whether this was to be our transport to Dalat. The seats were old and worn, and our driver swerved in and out of traffic like a slalom skier. Little did I know that after finding out how we were actually going to be traveling, I would have happily chosen the little van over it!
So we bump along in our transport, with no clue where we are off to. And when we finally got there, we really wish we hadn’t. There may as well have been sign that said “Welcome to the Urinal Depot”, because that’s what we’ll forever remember it as. It reeked. Badly. Like urine. Just in case you didn’t get that from the “Urinal” part.
Add to that the smell of about 100 buses coughing fumes, and you can see why we weren’t too pleased to be there. We get out of the van, grab our bags, and stand helplessly amidst the buses. Thankfully our driver sensed our confusion, and said a bunch of things in Vietnamese, then led us to the café.
In case you’ve never been to Vietnam, a café can very easily consist of some tiny plastic chairs (think of the ones designed as lawn chairs for children), tiny plastic tables, and some umbrellas. Out in the middle of the pavement.
He motions for us to sit down. I do so with little problem. Rob, who is very much not of normal Vietnamese stature, sits down in his chair, then laughs, and stands back up to demonstrate the fact that the chair sticks to his bottom, because it is so desperately small for him.
We whip out our books and begin to pass the time by reading. And also by inhaling the fumes of the running van a meter behind us. This is Ho Chi Minh City, and it is sweltering, so we weren’t too pleased to be blasted with hot, stinky air. We weren’t too pleased with anything at this point. But this is what traveling can be like, and we’ve had a very similar experience waiting for a ferry in Greece, so we just sit and read and hope that whenever we’re supposed to get on our bus someone will tell us.
Well, eventually someone finds us and motions for us to follow him. We go through the motions of putting our books away, getting our bags ready, stand up, and….Where did he go? We peer around, start to slowly walk through the vans, and generally look like some lost, baby deer. Then he suddenly appears again, and waves to us to follow him. So we start walking through the buses again, and have to take a little detour because the bag won’t fit between two of them. By the time we get out into an opening where we was standing but moments before, he has once again disappeared.
I’m starting to feel like Alice chasing the white rabbit.
We wander again, many Vietnamese men motion at varying buses and at us and seem to have very important things to tell us, but it’s all in Vietnamese, and our grasp of the language doesn’t extend beyond pho bo (beef soup) and sinh to (fruit shake). And they were using neither of those phrases, so we were out of luck.
We stand for a while, then suddenly he pops up out of nowhere and motions us towards a small little bus that here is known as a 16-seater.
Please note that this means 16 Vietnamese people, traveling in Vietnamese style (i.e. crammed in like sardines).
At least the sign on the front says Dalat. We’re getting somewhere.
We bring our bags around back to put them away. Two of them get in there alright, but our large camera bag doesn’t look like it is going to fit, and we’d rather not watch him slam the door on it, as we’re sure it would be accompanied by the crashing both of our cameras and our dreams, so Rob holds on to it. We walk around to the door, and it opens to reveal…
A damn tiny bus.
And luckily for us, our seats are in the very back, crammed with two other people in our row. Wait, make that three other people, because the woman was holding her young son on her lap. We literally barely even fit in our seats, and had three bags between the two of us to hold. The leg room was so scarce that neither of us could sit with our knees straight forward, as they would bump into the seat in front of us. And we needed to contort our limbs into pretzels in order to actually fit in some way that didn’t involve Rob’s elbow in my ribs, or my kneecap in his thigh.
I sat there and knew that this was going to be a very very long ride.
And it was. It was about seven hours to get to Dalat, including a pit stop where I had my first encounter with a squat toilet (not as fun as you’d think), and we watched kittens playing (way more fun than you’d think). We both attempted to sleep, though that definitely didn’t happen.
And we became intimately aware of the poor condition of the roads in Vietnam, as we bumped along, and upon many occasions became completely airborne, sometimes by about a foot.
We said a silent thank you to Steve Jobs, and those awesome folk at Apple for inventing the iPhone, as we spent the last two hours of the ride watching The Matrix, which helped time pass better than counting black shapes in the darkness. Did I mention that twilight here lasts about 30 seconds? One moment I’m reading my book, and by the time I’ve flipped the page it’s pitch black and I’m SOL.
As we got closer to the ETA that we calculated when we left HCMC (I’m in an acronym mood right now, it appears) the bus started pulling over, and people started getting out. At very very random places in the middle of seemingly nowhere, without saying a word to the driver. At least I don’t think they said anything…It was incredibly strange, and we were starting to wonder how we were to know that we were supposed to get off.
Well, the way to know when you’ve arrived at your final destination in Vietnam is precisely when the driver hops out and throws your stuff onto the street.
He jets off and leaves us there around 9:00PM in a bus station, which we desperately hope is in Dalat. The only other person we immediately see is a very intrepid motorcycle driver who wants to take us into town. This tiny man on his tiny bike wants to take me, Rob, and our 6 larges bags into town. We chuckle at his optimism and tell him “No, we need a taxi”. “No more taxi” he tells us. Did I mention it was raining?
So we start to walking towards a building with lights on, in hopes of figuring out what to do next when a little green van driving by stops, and some Vietnamese guys inside yell at us “Where are you going?”. “Hotel”, we reply. “Yes, get in”.
They may as well have said “Yes get in and I’ll tell you all about how you just won the lottery”, for as good as it sounded to us at the moment.
So we pile into the van, and pick a hotel from the Lonely Planet and say we want to go there. They convey this to the driver, and off we go. Before they get out they let us know that we don’t have to pay for this ride, it’s complimentary from our bus company. People here can be genuinely, incredibly nice, and we were very glad to have met some of them.
Then we met the other taxi driver.
After the local guys had piled out, and it was just the two of us foreigners left (read: easy marks) another taxi driver came up to the window and told us about a very nice hotel room for very cheap. “No thanks, we want to go here”.
”No, it’s closed”
“It’s not closed”
“Yes, it’s closed. I have a very nice room for very cheap.”
“No, we want to go here.”
“No, it’s not closed”
“You say it’s not closed. Okaaaayyyyyyyy” Like he thought we were crazy.
It wasn’t closed.
Remember that if you’re ever traveling. As I hear it, it can be pretty bad in India. Just stick to your guns, and if you get there and it really is closed, you can still find somewhere else.
So, it wasn’t closed. We were proven right. But it was, in fact, full for the night.
Did I mention it was raining?
And though that could have been a wee little disaster right there, luckily in Vietnam you can’t spit and miss a hotel (or however that saying is meant to go) so a two minute walk down the street brought us to a two star hotel (they were very proud of that fact) for $20/night that only smelled mildly of sewage, and so we took it.
And that was our journey to Dalat.
Since it was pitch black there when we arrived we had no idea what to expect. When we checked in to the hotel they asked if we wanted to partake in the breakfast buffet. “Sure!” we said. (Mistake).
The girl at the desk happily informs us that she can give us a wake-up call at 7:30AM so we can get breakfast. Our happy faces turn into sad faces. But we figured we’d wake up, sleepily walk downstairs, have breakfast and walk back upstairs back into bed.
So 7:30AM rolls around and we are woken up by knocking at the door. Apparently our line was busy so she came to the room (in all fairness, the staff there were super awesome, and totally helped us out a lot while we were there!). We trudge downstairs, expecting to see a restaurant somewhere full of people. We saw nothing of the sort. With confused looks, we go to her, and she tells us that the restaurant is actually 100m down the street. So we take off, walk quite a ways down the street, see absolutely nothing, so we walk back. One of the security guys springs to action when we say that we can’t find it, and says he’ll take us on his scooter. So he and another guy rev up their engines, and take us right back the way we just walked. Only difference, they went about 10m further around a corner, and there it was.
So we’re finally here, we figure we might as well enjoy it. We burst through the doors expecting to be welcomed with the smell of waffles and eggs. And instead the smells of noodles, fried rice, dumplings and “fish gruel” (as Rob describes it) meet our nostrils. Mmmm, breakfast of champions.
But we eat, get back to the hotel, and arrange to rent a scooter for the day. About 10 mintues later a very friendly guy who says he loves the snow but has never seen it (that’s why he loves it, he doesn’t know how freakin’ cold it is) shows up and gives us a scooter for the day.
Scooter rental: 100,000 Dong (around $6)
Filling it up with gas: 50,000 Dong (around $3)
Total freedom: Priceless
We found a map, brought along our handy Lonely Plant, and took off down the road. Some of our best memories of our trip to Europe involved jetting around the Greek Islands on a scooter, and we were very glad to be doing it again. And we sure got our monies worth with some breathtaking scenery. Let’s get to some visuals shall we?
Our first stop was a cable car that promised breathtaking views of the area. I think it came through.
The cable car took us to this little area with some pagodas and whatnot. We just wandered around, avoiding the legions of small schoolchildren who were visiting that day. One thing you don’t see at home, bamboo growing all over the place!
We followed a path that took us down to the water. The skies were just fantastic, sometimes a clear blue sky isn’t always the best.
The ubiquitous motorcycle, everywhere you go.
The steps leading back up
And after we made our way back across the cable car we stopped for a little snack. These have become our favorite treats, and it’s funny because we’ve actually had them back at home in Edmonton, from the local Asian grocery store. They are ice cream bars that taste just like honeydew melons. Rob bought two and had both of them finished before I had finished my one…. I have sensitive teeth….
The entrance to the cable car had some really interesting trees and Rob grabbed this awesome shot of one of them.
The view of the city from where we caught the cable car.
Then it was back on the scooter, a quick look at the map, and off we went again. This time we were heading a bit further out of town, but we were up for the adventure. The Lonely Planet had mentioned that you would be taking a dirt road. What they should have called it was “the crappiest road you’ve ever encountered”. There were two tiny paths on the very shoulders of the road where people tried to avoid all the bumps. Didn’t work that well. Every jolt sent a shockwave of pain into my brain. It definitely wasn’t too fun. But that’s the price you pay for independence ☺
And I would say the views we got were worth the pain. Here’s a little video of some of the scenery.
Finally we made our way to our destination: Tiger Falls. And because we made our own way out there, we were the only tourists in the whole place, so we were able to enjoy the scenery all alone, without any kids tearing around, or people screaming in 20 different languages, and the tour guide herding you back to the bus before you are ready. Just peace and quiet and a ton of water.
I sat and read the guidebook while Rob took some shots
He took some really really amazing shots.
Then when we were hiking back up we had the option to go left, the way we came, or right, a brand new way. Naturally, we went right. And came across the bridge that crossed over the falls. It certainly wasn’t like any bridge you’d encounter in Canada.
It was a bit scary
And we had to walk very cautiously
But it was definitely fun. Here’s a little video just to get you even more scared
And then it was back home. Here’s our trusty stallion, our scooter
And a sign that we saw as we were driving along. Apparently the Vietnamese don’t care for the sound of trumpets. Who knew?
And a final shot, as we were driving around looking for some place to eat dinner. One of the strange features of Dalat is a radio tower shaped like the Eiffel Tower. I had to get a shot of it, because who would really believe that this was here, in the middle of Vietnam? But it is, and it was really funny to drive through the streets with this huge thing looming in front of you.
And that about sums up Dalat! We left the next morning, bright and early. A mini-bus picked us up from our hotel at 7:15AM and we were just praying that we weren’t in for a repeat of our last journey. When we pulled up beside a big huge tour bus, and saw lots of white people standing around, we knew we were safe. 7 hours later, and we find ourselves in Nah Trang, a beach town. We’re in a room that costs $15/night, has WIFI, and we can see the ocean from our room.
And it smells nothing at all like sewage. We’re very happy.
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